Love for the Game

Porter Ridge High quarterback/linebacker Nick Vagnone, 4-0 as a starter, shown with the defensive starters from the Porter Ridge Middle School team he helps coach

When Porter Ridge High Scool coach Blair Hardin refers to junior Nick Vagnone as a “Renaissance guy,” he means that if Vagnone played in the era of leather helmets and three-way players, he’d be just one of the guys and not one of the best stories going in Union County. A linebacker by trade, Vagnone is the type who could move to guard in a pinch and know when to pull and whom to seal off.
It’s the same savvy that’s allowed Vagnone to seamlessly transition into being the Pirates’ quarterback – and a defensive coordinator for the Porter Ridge Middle School team – this season.
Last year, as a sophomore linebacker, Vagnone led a particularly stout defense that allowed about 15 points a game. He had 88 tackles while also chipping in three sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. It was a standout season for the first-year starter. He also was the team’s backup quarterback, a position he’d played since sixth grade, but didn’t take a snap all season.
Entering the summer, he was among the competitors to replace departed signal-caller Lee McNeill, now a freshman with the Charlotte 49ers. But the early money was on one of the other quarterbacks to land the position since they, after all, weren’t going to be
playing linebacker at the same time.
But Vagnone decided to prepare for the job, just in case.
“I was ready for anything,” Vagnone said. “Coach (Hardin) told me that I was there to play linebacker, and that’s my main thing. That’s what I did the year before, so I was preparing to do both. I wanted to prepare like I was going to be the starter.”
Vagnone said he spent extra time with McNeill, who helped refine his delivery, and even attended a quarterback camp hosted by Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who coached both Peyton and Eli Manning in college.
The extra time preparing was evident by the end of the preseason.
“We evaluated (our quarterbacks) every day,” said Hardin. “After our scrimmages, we just knew he had the confidence we needed, and that’s where he is right now.”
So Hardin handed the reins of one of the state’s most successful programs – a program with a 22-game regular-season winning streak and a legitimate shot at returning to the Class 4A title game – to his middle linebacker.
So far, Vagnone has shown he’s not just competent at the position; he’s downright good. Through four games, all wins, Vagnone has completed 34 of his 49 passes (430 yards) at a clip of better than 69 percent. He’s tossed seven touchdowns and only one interception. While he’s only averaging 107.5 passing yards per game, his production has been bolstered by 31.8 yards rushing per game in the Pirates’ Triple Option Spread offense. Besides, with backfield mates Chris Duffy and Jerrick Robbins combining to average 185.6 rushing yards per game, the Pirates have had all the offense they’ve needed.
“He’s really put in a lot of time on his own to really develop,” said Hardin. “He’s just a tough kid who likes to work.
“The biggest thing I love about him, similar to Lee McNeill last year, he’s just a winner. He’s going to do whatever it takes to win.”
Such as continuing to play linebacker, making him one of the few players in the state who doubles at those positions, especially in Class 4A. While he’s slipped to third on the team in tackle totals (19), he’s been a rock in the middle, contributing a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
The transition has been anything but surprising for his teammates, said receiver/defensive end Luke Bayly, who cited a 20-pound gain in Vagnone’s weight – all muscle – during the offseason.
“I knew it was going to be easy for him; he worked hard in the offseason,” said Bayly, who’s caught four of Vagnone’s touchdowns with a team-high 173 receiving yards. “I haven’t been surprised at all at the production he’s putting forward for us.”
The two positions are hardly exclusive of each other, however, at least when played by Vagnone, who’s gained many of his rushing yards between the tackles while running like, well, a linebacker, often delivering harder blows than the defenders attempting to tackle him.
“That sparks the team,” said Duffy. “He’s going both ways, he’s taking hits, he’s delivering blows. We all look up to him. He gets us pumped and ready for games. We all respect him, and we ride off of him.”
Toughness and the willingness to prepare during the offseason are attributes of most successful high school football players, but Vagnone also has an uncommon understanding of the game, which has helped him in his position with the Porter Ridge Middle School team, of which his father, Mike, is head coach.
For Vagnone, his first coaching position has been a long time coming, even if he is just a junior. Vagnone, whose teammates and coaches have dubbed “John Madden” after the legendary Oakland Raiders coach who spawned a popular video game series, said he probably has filled a dozen notebooks with plays he’s designed himself.
“I’ve always been an X’s and O’s guy,” Vagnone said. “All that stuff has infatuated me.”
Vagnone’s proclivity for football is really no different from a mathematician’s comfort in working with numbers. For Vagnone, football simply makes sense.
“I just started to see things, like how things open up,” said Vagnone, who equated football to a foreign language. “It’s a really complicated thing to describe. It’s one of those things where, when you get it, you get it.”
For Hardin, however, Vagnone’s fluency in the sport is easier to explain.
“He’s a film rat – he’s always studying,” Hardin said. “He knows our scouting reports inside and out, he knows his opponents. In the offseason he watches tons of film, he studies. The reason he’s able to coordinate an offense and be a captain on defense is because he puts in the time during the offseason. He just loves the game. He really does.”
That knowledge also has paid off for the high school program. Pirate senior Matt Wogan, who’s committed to Oregon as a kicker but has also emerged as a weapon at receiver this season, credits Vagnone with helping him learn the nuances of the passing game. Wogan also said Vagnone has been able to teach him a few things about special teams as well.
“The way (Vagnone) studies the game in all aspects – not just what he needs to do, but other people’s assignments so he can help them out – is amazing,” Wogan said.
At some point, after he’s done playing, Vagnone said he’d like to continue to coach. It’s a bit of a family industry, as both of his grandfathers coached. His father played linebacker at Western Carolina and Lenoir-Rhyne before starting the Pop Warner program at the Porter Ridge Athletic Association and later joining Porter Ridge Middle.
“We’re a football family, but you can’t make someone be like Nick, who’s (consumed) with it,” said Mike. “He just loves being around (football). You’d think at some point he’d get enough, but he doesn’t ever seem to.”
Vagnone, though, credits his father’s position as coach as the reason he’s so knowledgeable about the sport. It also gives him a unique perspective on what Hardin will face this week when the Pirates square off against Charlotte’s Providence Day School, coached by the legendary Bruce Hardin, Blair’s father.
“It’d be tough,” replied Vagnone when asked what it would be like to face his father from the opposite sideline. “It’d be real tough because my dad was the one that taught me almost everything I know, especially from a defensive standpoint. If I didn’t learn it from him, I learned it from (the Porter Ridge) coaches. We both kind of have the same eye.”
What he doesn’t have to imagine is what Providence Day will bring to the field Friday night. After all, it’s a Hardin-led team, and Vagnone expects many of the Charger players to have the same intimate knowledge of football that he has, which should make for a fun game, the quarterback/linebacker/coach said.
“It’s a blast when you’re going up against a team that you know, mentally, is going to go into every aspect of their preparation as well as you will,” said Vagnone. “They’re going to watch film just like you. And when you come to the game, they’re going to have a great game plan for you, and you’re going to have a great game plan for them.”
And that’s Vagnone’s kind of game.
“When the whistle blows you’re both going to be going full speed, taking each other’s head off and trying to execute,” Vagnone said. “Mentally, you’ve got to be on top of your game and know your
assignments.”

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